every so often a poem catches my breath and I feel wonder at its impact. This prophetic poem was written in 1918. The poet Philip Johnstone appears to be a pseudonym and little else is known about him. There are some preserved trenches in Belgium and France, and I too have trod the tourist’s path s at Hooge and Vimy Ridge, feeling slightly uncomfortable at indulging in battlefield tourism.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate
By Philip Johnstone.
If the man in the moon
Gazing at the waning earth, watches
How the frayed edge of the sunset catches
Thimbles and nodules of rock,
Hachuring distinct with threads of shadow
All that is hammered flat in the earth’s brass noon;
And if he sees,
New in the level light, like pock-
marks on a face, dark craters,
The size of acorn cups, or scars
Vast as his own dried oceans, then
He’ll know that soon
The living world of men
Will take a lunar look, as dead as slag,
And moon and earth will stare at one another
Like the cold, yellow skulls of child and mother.
South Cumberland, 16 May 1943
The sun has set
Behind Black Combe and the lower hills,
But northward in the sky the fells
Like gilded galleons on a sea of shadow
Float sunlit yet.
The liquid light
Soaks into the dry motes of the air,
Bright and moist until the flood of dawn;
Shoals of swifts round the market tower
Swim with fish-like flight.
Six days ago
The fells were limed with snow; the starlings on the chimney pots
Shook the falling flakes off their tin feathers.
May gives a sample of four seasons’ weathers
For a week on show.
A cold, wet, windy weekend in store so what better excuse to settle down with some yarn, a good book, radio on one side, shelties on the other. The lentil Hashis Parmentier in the slow cooker.
One of the programmes I am looking forward to this weekend is Poetry Extra on radio 4 extra tomorrow afternoon. I don’t read much poetry but there are 5 poets who I do read and re-read constantly – John Clare, Edward Thomas, Adam Thorpe, Ivor Gurney and Norman Nicholson. If you know these poets you can probably see a common theme.
Here is Coastal Journey, taken from Norman Nicholson’s Collected Poems.
Poetry Extra – Provincial Pleasures – Norman Nicholson – @BBCRadio4Extra http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09b6qt1
The firs that taper into twigs and wear
The rich blue green of summer all the year,
Softening the roughest tempest almost calm,
And offering shelter ever still and warm
To the small path that travels underneath,
Where loudest winds almost as summer’s breath
Scarce fan the weed that lingers green below,
When others out of doors are lost in frost and snow,
And sweet the music trembles on the ear
As the wind suthers through each tiny spear,
Makeshifts for leaves, and yet so rich they show
Winter is almost summer where they grow.
The Wood is Sweet – poems of Clare selected by David Powell
Published by the John Clare Society
The wild duck startles like a sudden thought
And heron slow as if it might be caught
The flopping crows on weary wing go bye
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they flye
The crowds of starnels wiz and hurry bye
And darken like a cloud the evening sky
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground
The wild swan hurrys high and noises loud
With white necks peering to the evening cloud
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone
With length of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the hedge below
On the day that the Yorkshire Dales Park extends into Lancashire, and the Lake District National Park extends so that the borders of the two parks come within spitting distance of one another, what better way of celebrating than by sharing a poem by Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson written in a Yorkshire dialect.
First on, there was nobbut God, – Genesis 1, v 1., Yorkshire Dialect Translation.
There was silence.
And God said:
‘Let there be clatter.’
The wind, unclenching,
Runs its thumbs
Along dry bristles of Yorkshire Fog.
The mountain ousel
Oboes its one note.
Drips like a tap
On the tarn’s tight surface-tension.
And every second nearer,
Like chain explosions
From furthest nebulae
Light-yearing across space:
The thudding of my own blood.
‘It’s nobbut me,’
SEA TO THE WEST (1981)